Sperlinga Castle: the legendary cavern in the rock

Sperlinga Castle. Photo: Pepi Marchetti Franchi

In the centre of Sicily, in the province of Enna, between the Nebrodi and Madonie mountains, in a landscape noted for the sublime solitude of its countryside and the friability of the local sandstone, a rocky fortress looms up. It was excavated in the early Middle Ages, partly inside, and partly perched on top of a huge rocky crag – a construction so magnificent that it is well worth making the journey to see it. Topped by a crenelated tower affording a magnificent view of the surrounding area, Sperlinga Castle is accessed by a gentle slope that, after passing a pointed arch, leads the visitor into a long, winding series of cavernous rooms. These spaces are for the most part bare but extraordinary, featuring huge gaping openings, sometimes in the ceiling or on the walls, often with organic shapes that recall, in the alienating perceptual effect created between interior and exterior, some of James Turrell’s “skyscapes”.

The building we see today dates from around the year 1000, but excavations in the area confirm that the fortress was already in use in earlier times. During the Middle Ages, the castle and its surroundings were inhabited by sedentary populations from the north who left many traces in the area, such as the Gallo-Italic dialect still spoken locally. It also appears that during the famous Sicilian Vespers, the revolt that broke out in 1282 against the Angevin dynasty that had ruled over Sicily for decades, some French soldiers took refuge in the castle, as the inscription still visible on the entrance arch would seem to confirm. In 1932, Escher came across it and drew a picture of it.

Acclaimed as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, Sperlinga is still little known and visited. With almost 700 inhabitants, some still engaged in traditional weaving activities, it takes you on a journey into a bygone world. Especially if you find yourself in the more densely populated neighbouring Madonie mountains, where the beautiful hamlets of Petralia Sottana and Soprana, Gangi and Castelbuono – which has become renownedfor its panettone – receive many visitors, make a little effort and don’t miss out on this amazing, yet still secret, place.

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